The Crum: Criminals, Conflict and Canapés

Image from Crumlin Gaol website

Grey, black and forbidding” – words by Historian Éamon Phoenix to describe Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast. I mean to be honest what prison would want an inviting look I suppose? The gaol dates back to 1843 and has seen many prisoners come and go through its doors (and for a small few to never leave). Today it is a top visitor attraction and events venue with the Courthouse currently being converted into a luxury hotel. This week’s post I will be talking about the Gaols origins, some of the prisoners who were incarcerated there and what can be seen today.

Photo Credit Laura Adkins

Crumlin Road Gaol was built to replace Carrickfurgus as the new Antrim County gaol. Work started in 1843 with the first inmates marching through its doors in 1846. It was designed by English architect and engineer Sir Charles Lanyon who based it on Pentonville Gaol in London. It was built out of black basalt rock and was 10 acres. It would cost £6000 to build and could house up to 550 prisoners.

Pentonville was one of the first gaol designed and operated on a system of solitary confinement. The idea was to keep prisoners isolated from each other. Crumlin would be the first in Ireland to use this design and as such was one of the most advance prisons of its day.  It had a central area called the Circle with four wings branching out – radial cellular system. Each cell is 13 feet by 7 feet wide with walls 18 inches thick.

Photo from http://www.blog.felicityfields.com/ireland-crumlin-road-gaol/

 In addition to the gaol a courthouse was built on the other side of the road. This too was designed by Charles Lanyon and was in the Neoclassical design. it was completed in 1850. the gaol and courthouse would be linked by a tunnel so the prisoners did not even have to be taken outside to get sentenced. This tunnel still exists today and can be visited although only half as the courthouse side is blocked up.  

Photo credit Laura Adkins

More building works commenced in the 1880s-90s. A hospital and laundry block were added. The laundry block was also a working laundrette where the community could bring in their clothes for the inmates to wash. This was the norm across many of the Victorian Gaols of the day. They were penal institutions and working prisons.

In the 1950’s ‘The Crum’ (as was called)  was referred to as Europes  Alcatraz due to a number of improvements within security at the Prison. However this did not stop prisoners from escaping. There have been 52 prisoners who have managed to escape its walls in its history.  The first escape was 9th May 1927. There were further escaped in 41, 43, 71 and the last in 19881.

The escapees in 1971 actually were known as the Crumlin Kangaroos. Nine prisoners managed to escape by climbing over the prison walls during a football match. One would think that security was doubled after this but something went wrong as only two weeks later another three prisoners escaped from the same place!

As a result of this the Gaol became a source of jokes and satire for some time afterwards. The Republicans even made a song of the escape:

In Crumlin Road Jail hall the prisoners one day
Took out a football and started to play
And while all the warders were watching the ball
Nine of the prisoners jumped over the wall

Over the wall, over the wall
Who could believe they jumped over the wall
Over the wall, over the wall
It’s hard to believe they jumped over the wall

Now the warders looked on with the greatest surprise
And the sight that they saw brought the tears to their eyes
For one of the teams was not there at all
They all got transferred and jumped over the wall

Over the wall, over the wall
Who could believe they jumped over the wall
Over the wall, over the wall
It’s hard to believe they jumped over the wall

Now the governor’s came down with his face in a twist
Said, “Line up these lads while I check out me list”
But nine of the lads didn’t answer the call
And the warder said,” Please, sir they’re over the wall.”

Over the wall, over the wall
Who could believe they jumped over the wall
Over the wall, over the wall
It’s hard to believe they jumped over the wall

The security forces were shook to the core
So they barred every window and bolted each door
But all of their precautions were no use at all
For another three prisoners jumped over the wall

Over the wall, over the wall
Who could believe they jumped over the wall
Over the wall, over the wall
It’s hard to believe they jumped over the wall

When the news reached old Stormont Faulkner turned pale
When he heard that more men had escaped from his jail.
Said he, “Now we’ll have an enquiry to call
And we’ll get Edmund Compton to whitewash the wall.”

Over the wall, over the wall
Who could believe they jumped over the wall
Over the wall, over the wall
It’s hard to believe they jumped over the wall

Eamon de Valera – image from wikipedia

The Crumlin Kangaroos who escaped were members of the Irish Republican party and would not be the only prisoners who represented those particular political beliefs. One of the most prominent republicans to be held at the Crum was Éamon de Valera. He had been arrested for illegally entering Northern Ireland. He was placed in solitary confinement for a month. In 1929 he was arrested again only this time his time was more enjoyable and he actually played games of chess with the governor and had dinner with him after the two struck up a friendship. De Valera at the time of his incarceration was the leader of the Sienn Fein Party. He would eventual became Irelands Prime minster on three occasions followed by president of the republic until his death in 1972.

Dorothy Evans – pohot from Wikipedia

Early 20th Century Britain was full of various political uprisings and movements. One of these was the woman’s right from suffrage. In England this was led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Ireland would also join in this movement with the WSPU campaign led by Dorothy Evans in Ulster. In 1914, Evans and Madge Muir were arrested for possession of explosives. Just before their arrest, there was an explosion at Lisburn Cathedral and the WSPU was responsible. The two women were held at The Crum along with other women involve in the suffrage movement. Although Women held at the Crum were usually held in a prison block which was located at the end of D wing, those arrested for being suffragettes were held in A Block.

As with many Suffragettes incarcerated at the time across Britain Evans and Muir went on hunger strike. The strike was meant to be a protest on the lack of recognition from the government of the suffragettes political status. The government began to worry that if these women died in their care then they would become martyrs to the cause and raise more awareness of their plight in the press. Therefore they passes the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act in 1913 which meant that women who were on hunger strike would be released after reaching certain stage in their hunger strike. When they were well enough the plan was to re arrest them and place them back in jail.

This did not quite go to plan in some cases and it can certainly be said for Evans and Muir. On their release they were picked up by a car which had been decked with suffrage flags and drove around Belfast drawing attention to themselves. They were soon rearrested and sent back to The Crum.

Photo credit Laura Adkins

I have spoken about some of the prisoners at the Crum who were held there and also some who escaped. I now move on to write about some of those which were not so lucky. In total 17 people were executed within the walls of Crumlin Gaol under the method of hanging.

When it was first built the Crumlin did not have assigned room for hanging and so when the first hanging was carried out in 1894, a Henry O’Neil for robbery – it was done in the yard in front of crowds of people who would flock to see the hangings.  It was not until 1900 when a stone chamber was built specifically for executions – the first was William Woods in 1901. This stone chamber can still be seen today by those who visit the gaol. It is even said that the rope which hangs there was the rope used to hang Robert Mcgladdery  on 20th December 1961, who would be the last executed at the site.

In memoriam – photo credit Laura Adkins

In total fourteen of the 17 prisoners executed were buried in unmarked graves wiring the walls of the prison. Today some engravings on the wall mark a rough location of where these souls were buried.

The most intriguing prisoner executed at the Crum was Eddie Cullen’s in 1932.  He had been convicted of the murder of Achmet Musa, a Turkish circus worker. Musa body was found naked in a field in . He had been shot in the head. Cullens was a Jewish American citizen who was in Ireland travelling with Musa and two other Turkish men.  On the body a blue and white rubber swimming hat was found on the body which was identified by a girl he had picked up. In addition to this Cullen’s was also in possession in his luggage of a .25 revolver, the same type used to murder Musa. Cullen was also identified by a farmer as asking for directions near to the location where the body was found the following day. Cullen’s was still protesting his innocent when he was walking to the gallows. No motive was given for the crime just that the jury felt the evidence was enough.

locked up tight – Photo credit Laura Adkins

Crumlin gaol closed is door to prisoners in 1996 Today it is the only remaining Victorian era prison in Ireland and is grade A listed. The Gaol would be a prison no more…..or so we thought. In 2003 it was re developed and opened as a museum and heritage attraction. Highlighting its history and its significant in Belfast’s and Irelands history.

Aside from those who visit the prison on a daily basis exploring C wing, the yard and listening to its history for informative guides the prison also opens its doors of an evening too. Crumlin Gaol is an events venue. Throughout the year it is host to a variety of events from weddings, music concerts and ceremonies. They have a number of spaces for hiring to suit all numbers and occasions, including the popular paranormal investigations.

Yes, the Crum is believed to be haunted and those who were incarcerated are believed to live there still, they never left!  People have reported slamming doors and cries when there is no one there to do them. In C wing there is a man who walks along the corridor and disappears. In B wing a prison guard still haunts the cells completing his daily duties, could he be the same sprit who touches and pushes those who venture alone into the padded cell or is it someone else?

Fortunately I managed to escape….. – Photo credit Louise Aldridge

The tunnel which links to the courthouse is believed to be the most haunted of all the places in the gaol and I am not surprised. The number of people who have walked that route and to return again with a sentence of imprisonment, deportation or death! Sights include a prison warder, a little girl and a grey figure. Fancy going to visit the Crums Inmates or just a visit in the day time then head over to their website for opening details, events and ticket prices.

https://www.crumlinroadgaol.com/

Sources:

Souvenir Guidebook to Crumlin Road Gaol

Anon (2019) Separate System. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separate_system [Accessed 10/11/19]

Anon (2017) History of the Crumlin Road Gaol. Available from: https://www.crumlinroadgaol.com/gaol-tours/visitor-experience/history-of-the-crumlin-road-gaol/ [Accessed 01/11/19]

Anon (2017) The Suffragettes. Available from: http://www.belfasthistoryproject.com/thesuffragettes/

Anon (2006) Separation Pentonville. Available from: http://vcp.e2bn.org/justice/page11642-separation-pentonville.html [Accessed 10/11/19]

Anon (2001) Over the Wall. Available from: https://www.antiwarsongs.org/canzone.php?id=38214&lang=en [Accessed 16/11/19]

McGarvey, P (2016) Crumlin Road Gaol: Evolution from symbol of conflict to concerts. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35916907  [Accessed 09/11/19]

Quinn, J (2008) A brief History of Crumlin Gaol. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20080609015238/http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article.aspx?art_id=147

Rogers, H (2018) 5 Facts about Crumlin road courthouse. Available from: https://lanyonhotel.co.uk/blog/facts-about-crumlin-road-courthouse-gaol/    [accessed 12/11/19]

Straine, A (2010) Jewish American hung in Belfast remains in jail grounds. Avalbile from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8394309.stm [Accessed 19/11/19]

Rogers, H (2018) The Paranormal past of crumlin road. Available from: https://lanyonhotel.co.uk/blog/the-paranormal-past-of-crumlin-road/

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